WORKPLACE / DEC. 13, 2014
version 2, draft 2

How to Use Nudge Theory With Your Colleagues

Even if you have not heard of nudge theory, you will certainly have experienced it. Nudge theory looks at how to modify and improve human behaviour with small changes - nudges in the right direction, and although it was intended to be the life changing stuff of governments, put to use improving the health of the nation, or persuading people to pay their taxes - it is equally used by supermarkets and business owners to get us to spend more and think less. Now you can use these same ideas to make your life easier when persuading your colleagues to cooperate with you.

You may think that you have not experienced this phenomenon, but when was the last time you picked up an expensive branded product because it was at eye level in the supermarket, or the dress you fancied at the first place you visited because the choice was therefore easier, even though you know you could buy the same for half the price with a little bit of legwork?

Sound familiar? Yes. Sound logical? Well, not entirely. So why not use the same nudge theory to get the best from your relationship with your colleagues?.

Number One - Use a positive phrasing

So your colleague room is always being left in a mess, with festering coffee cups strewn about, and half eaten biscuits ditched on the counter tops. A familiar sight. Have you also got a sign saying something along the lines of ’It’s the maid’s day off - clean up after yourself!’, or perhaps ’The cleaning fairies are on strike’. If you’re sick of the mess, then try replacing these messages with a more positively phrased notice, and watch the change in your colleagues’ behaviour.

Whilst a stern note chastising those who leave the mess might feel appropriate, nudge theory would argue that a more positive phrase gets better results - try something like ’We are really proud of our clean colleague room - thank you for keeping it that way’. By setting the acceptable social norm as one of tidying up after yourself, and reflecting favourably on those who do so, this will get better cooperation than threats or sarcasm might.

Number Two - Try goal substitution

An example often quoted of nudge theory in action involves companies trying to persuade people to get their home loft space insulated. Despite the fact that this service would be entirely free with government grants, and would ultimately save the home owners money on their heating, the take up was surprisingly low. One of the reasons behind this was the hassle in clearing out the loft to get the work done - traipsing up and down the ladder with a life time of accumulations did not seem worth while for the delayed return of cheaper energy bills.

One company had the brainwave of offering the home owners not insulation alone, but the opportunity to clear out their loft with help. They would get the stuff out of the loft for the owner, and then remove anything that was not wanted. The insulation would be put in before all the remaining belongings were stacked neatly back in the loft. The outcome - an insulated loft - was exactly the same; but the goal achieved was actually a tidy and sorted loft for the home owner.

In a work environment this could be applied if you’re trying to get people to use the stairs rather than the lift, for example. Instead of saying ’Use the stairs because the lift is a waste of energy and money’, you could label each flight of stairs with the number of stairs climbed, a ’well done’ message, the number of calories burned by walking that far, and what that equates to. That way, you are replacing the goal ’save the company money’ with ’burn some calories and reward yourself with a biscuit’. Much more enticing.

Number Three - Make it an opt-out process

Nudge theory is used for the greater good in many ways, and in some countries the theory of an opt-out process being advantageous has been applied to organ donation. Whilst many places struggle to get enough people to sign up for organ donations, not because of real objections, but due to apathy, some countries, such as France, Belgium, Denmark and Italy, have made organ donation an opt out process. This means that the assumption is made that you will donate in the event of your death, and you automatically agree to this when you sign up for a driving license, for example. If you choose not to do so, you can be removed from the register, but you have to actively make the choice to make this happen.

In work, this could be used with your colleagues when planning a project, or arranging a Christmas party for example. Don’t ask for volunteers, but make cooperation with the project or party an opt-out system. If people don’t want to be involved they have to come and talk to you about it, meaning that more are likely to get involved than otherwise, as apathy is not the simplest option.

Nudge theory is a powerful tool in the workplace and at home. The examples above are simple ones, whilst the scope of the theory to apply to other areas is huge. Take some time to think about how you can help yourself by slightly changing your style of working, and you will reap the benefits in the longer term.

Image source: Office via Flickr

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